In 2015, Claire Felicie made a photo reportage of Dutch soldiers and combat veterans during their annual pilgrimage to Lourdes by motorbike. The friendships formed during this project led to a second photo reportage Only The Sky Remains Untouched, in which Felicie portrays fifteen veterans in a dilapidated weapons factory at Hembrug in Zaandam, The Netherlands. The place is a symbol of the suffering of former soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The fifteen combat veterans are of varying ages. All of them took part in UN peacekeeping missions. Some were sent to the Lebanon, others to Bosnia or Afghanistan. Wearing camouflage trousers and bare-chested they lie on a wooden stretcher in the dismantled space of a former weapons factory. Their partial uniforms show one half of their identity, a shared identity as proud members of the Dutch armed forces. Their uncovered bodies show the other half, that of a human individual, vulnerable and alone.
“To face your traumatic experience is perhaps the toughest of all missions.”
Felicie used a large-format camera for her series. Taking a picture with this type of camera requires a lot of time and patience. Both for the photographer and for the people portrayed, this meant that the photo sessions were an intensive affair, made even more charged by the personal conversations which took place. As such, a condition for the project was great mutual trust and respect. Felicie compares the way in which the series came about to a ritual, in which nothing is without meaning. Although she will never be able to completely fathom the deep suffering of those portrayed, she hopes that these images will help others begin to understand the trauma. Felicie also took pictures of the old weapons factory which had become overgrown with weeds. Everything carries traces of destruction and decay.
An elegant new book has just been published in a limited edition of 700. The book design interleaves the portraits with textures from the abandoned weapons factory. A fold-out section in the back offers detailed information about each of the soldiers, including short interviews, and snapshots from their active duty days. It’s a very effective presentation, powerfully charged with emotion. Highly recommended.